Thursday, January 5, 2012

Could someone please tell us what's going on here?

I’m intrigued to see that the Labour Party and at least one Green MP (Steffan Browning) are having second thoughts about legislation governing food safety standards.

The New Zealand Herald reports today that the Food Bill is under fire because of its possible impact on community growers, farmers’ markets and small food traders.

As the Herald says, the bill was reported back from a select committee more than a year ago with broad cross-party support, but Browning now says he will push for further amendments to exempt small traders from having to comply with unnecessary red tape. Browning has also labelled proposed new powers for food safety officers as excessive.

Meanwhile, Labour’s primary industries spokesman, Damien O’Connor, is quoted as saying: “We will not be giving our support to this bill unless a number of areas are clarified, including areas affecting small growers.”

But hang on a minute. This bill went through the select committee process. Presumably it’s the same bill now as it was then. So why have Labour and Browning, having earlier indicated assent, now decided they don’t like it?

Presumably the bill’s flaws were pointed out in submissions. Weren’t the Labour and Green members of the committee paying attention, or have circumstances somehow changed since the bill was reported back? I think we’re entitled to an explanation.

The select committee system removes legislation from the gladiatorial arena of the parliamentary debating chamber and is often cited as an example of parliamentary co-operation and scrutiny at its best. But clearly there’s something wonky about the process if a bill that everyone was happy with a year ago is now deemed to be unsatisfactory. What’s happened in the interim?

I know little about this bill and have no opinion on it either way – it’s the position-changing that interests me.

At the back of my mind, there’s a persistent little voice asking whether this might have something to do with the fact that the media generally no longer report select committee proceedings. Until relatively recent times, parliamentary debates and select committee hearings were reported in some detail, most conscientiously by the now-defunct NZPA. Media coverage often alerted the public to contentious legislation before the House, giving people time to mobilise in opposition. But nuts-and-bolts reporting of day-to-day parliamentary business is today deemed unsexy and has largely been abandoned by the Press Gallery in favour of the controversy du jour.

I wonder whether, as a result of this, flawed legislation is sometimes presented to the public as a fait accompli – passed into law before people know it exists.

In the case of the food bill, is it possible the centre-left parties are having second thoughts because word of the bill has only now belatedly seeped out to the people affected, and flaws that should have been picked up at the select committee stage are finally being pointed out? If so, could this be at least partly a consequence of the way the media now reports (or more precisely, doesn't report) parliament?

Just a thought. There may of course be darker political factors at work here of which I’m innocently unaware, in which case I’ll be happy to pull my head in.

Footnote: The other intriguing aspect of this bill is that it clearly introduces a new level of bureaucratic intrusion and red tape into the food sector. Am I alone in thinking it seems bizarre that a supposedly centre-right government is promoting more Big Brother legislation, and that the left are the ones complaining about excessive powers being given to clipboard-wielding busybodies? Cheesh.


Eric Crampton said...

I'd love to see competent legal analysis on the likely effects of the bill as it's currently drafted. Will it kill off the farmers' markets?

I love that pretty much anybody here can get his start in small-scale food production by selling at farmers' markets, refining the product, then going big if there seems to be demand. I hope that the regs don't kill this.

Graeme Edgeler said...

Steffan Browning hasn't indicated earlier support. He's only a very recently become a member of Parliament.

Karl du Fresne said...

Sorry, that was a bit sloppy of me. I should have made it clear it was the party that had previously supported the bill.